La La Land (2017) – Movie Review
La La Land
Directed by: Damien Chazelle
Written by: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling & John Legend
Music: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
Release Date: January 12th 2017
While it’s easy to argue that the big-budget, big-screen musical has never really gone away (‘Chicago‘, ‘Into The Woods‘, ‘Les Misérables‘ etc.), the era of “Golden Age” musicals from the 1950s and the 1960s (‘South Pacific‘, ‘Singin’ in the Rain‘, ‘The King and I‘, ‘The Sound of Music‘, ‘Oliver!‘ etc. has shown no signs of returning. Modern musicals (99% of which are adaptations) utilise modern editing techniques, elaborate effects and celebrity casts whilst in the Golden Age these lavish, colourful productions would have a cast of thousands, regular leading stars and an emphasis on long, extensive takes and extended dance sequences.
It almost seems fitting that it’s ‘Whiplash‘ director Damien Chazelle to be the one to try and reinvigorate the bygone age of Hollywood as his love and fixation for Jazz demonstrated in ‘Whiplash‘ suggests an affinity for old-fashioned music. A passion project of Chazelle’s and his University Colleague composer Justin Hurwitz, ‘La La Land‘ was written years before ‘Whiplash‘ saw the light of day, but due to that film being an independent hit, a multi-Oscar-winner as well as a “Best Picture” nominee, Chazelle now has the clout to bring his passion to life and the end result is an outstanding cinematic experience that you’re unlikely to forget.
In Los Angeles Mia (Stone) is an aspiring actress who is working at a Barista at a movie lot. After a string of failed auditions she meets Sebastian (Gosling), a jazz pianist who dreams of opening up his own nightclub. The two almost immediately hit it off and strike up a relationship but the pressures of also maintaining a creative profession causes a strain between the two as Mia attempts to stage a one-woman play and Sebastian starts performing in a modern jazz man whose music he openly detests. Will the two manage to fulfil their ambitions or are they just foolish dreamers?
It’s admiral how upfront ‘La La Land‘ is in being a committed, old-school musical in the vein of MGM’s classic slate of films from the 1950s such as ‘Singin’ in the Rain‘, ‘Annie Get Your Gun‘ and ‘High Society‘ to name a few, as well as the filmography of Vincente Minnelli (‘An American In Paris‘, ‘The Band Wagon‘ and ‘Gigi‘). This is exemplified from the opening shot of the movie (once the old-school opening logos are done, which include a boast of presenting the film in “CinemaScope” even though that technology conventionally no longer exists) being a five-minute long, elaborate musical number (“Another Day of Sun”) shot in a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway as the camera bobs and weaves through the stationary traffic to capture the optimism of the artists in their cars. Once the number ends, the camera then descends into the car of Sebastian and then into the separate car of Mia, indicating that after the musical number the story could have followed any of these people into the rest of their lives. The song also has a huge amount of diversity in the chorus, accurately reflecting what L.A. in 2016 looks like as opposed to “Golden-Age” Hollywood portraying L.A. as almost entirely white.
After the song with its elaborate choreography, colourful costumes, catchy beat and ensemble singers you know full well what you’re in for with this musical and if you’re a fan of the genre you’ll know whether or not to stick around or go.
Thankfully, those who stay will be witness to a wonderful musical about following dreams, never giving up, taking risks etcetera etcetera. That element works incredibly well as ‘La La Land‘ immerses the viewer in a romanticised view of L.A. and the film industry which for Mia is just out of reach as she works as a Barista on a movie lot that she can just walk through (what security?). We also have Sebastian who is a talented Jazz pianist who dreams of opening up his own nightclub where Jazz will reign because he sees it as slowly dying off. It seems that this plot-line is the one that resonates the most with director Damien Chazelle if his previous film ‘Whiplash‘ is any indication.
In regards to this optimistic outlook on artistry that the film portrays it’s about what you’d expect. Don’t give up your dreams, go out and do what you love etc. it’s stuff we’ve heard before but it’s said here with great conviction. What makes ‘La La Land‘ stick out above other optimistic fare is two-fold; it’s love story and it’s ending. Focusing on the love story first, we’re given Mia and Sebastian who have terrific chemistry with each other right off the bat and they’re both portrayed as young dreamers who admire each other’s talents and also want to help the other catch their big break. They offer advice to each other, they humour their ambitions and while the two don’t seem to have much of a connection beyond that, the film seems to be aware of this and depicts this romance as one of passion as opposed to reason.
The film’s able to pull off this relationship and still make it feel grounded in reality, for the most part. The biggest narrative issue of the film comes when Mia and Sebastian have an argument at a dinner table and despite fulling understanding the context of the scene and everything that had come before it, I couldn’t actually tell you what the two were arguing about if you put a gun to my head. This is an issue because it’s a key turning point of the movie but it just felt like the script said “The two then argue” and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling just made something up. It’s the only part of the relationship that I couldn’t buy as well as Sebastian’s insistence on not “selling out”. The conflict of his character is that he wants to create pure, old-school Jazz but he’s asked by John Legend (his character has a name but…yeah, he’s John Legend) to join their “new-wave” Jazz band as their keyboardist. But Sebastian, despite appreciating the regular, stable income, hates the music they create and their band’s manufactured image. It’s an understandable thought-process but the way it informs his actions just doesn’t ring true.
When you’re a grown-up and you’ve got grown-up things to do, you take the stable income even if you hate what you’re doing and then you dedicate your free-time to making your dream projects happen. Or you save up your stable income to take a big shot at them. However, Sebastian is an all-or-nothing kinda guy which on one level you can understand were it not for the fact that his band is hugely successful, performs at packed-out venues to screaming, adoring fans and the music he plays is friggin’ awesome. There’s no reason he couldn’t open up his band off the back of the jazz-band’s massive fame, or tour with them for a year or two and save up the money before branching off.
Maybe the audience could have related more to Sebastian if the only song we hear the band perform, “We Can Start A Fire”, didn’t wind up being one of the best songs in the entire movie.
This isn’t a deal-breaker issue in the film, but as someone who can relate to needing to pay bills, rent, support a partner yet also want to move up and make passion projects, it just rang as tone-deaf on Sebastian’s part. Mia’s story is the more interesting and more than makes up for the flaws of her co-star as she attempts to stage and market a one-woman show and seeing her try and make it work was very relatable and seeing the results of it was very sobering.
And now we come to the ending of the film and while I won’t get into spoilers, it feels disingenuous of the poster and trailers to advertise ‘La La Land‘ as a “feel-good” movie because the ending is…devastating. No, it’s not a film that ends with death, sickness or action but rather ‘La La Land‘ isn’t so much a film about dreams as it is a film about alternatives. The ending of the movie essentially puts us into the minds of Mia and Sebastian and we get to see how they could have altered their paths, how they could have done things different and whether or not they should have done. We’re not being presented with clear-cut paths and the film doesn’t take sides as to whether or not they were right to do what they did, but it’s about whether or not they could have had the best of both worlds.
And as someone who has a fiancée and is working in a creative industry, you’re damn right that ending spoke to me.
‘La La Land‘ is a toe-tapping, fun-time musical with a compelling love story at its centre and a duo of great lead performances (particularly from Emma Stone) but it’s also a story about deep regret and sacrifices as well as a mature understanding of relationships that allows the characters to move on from that regret whilst simultaneously asking “What if?”. The film, in terms of its aesthetics, may have its eyes set on Hollywood’s musical golden age but in regards to the characters themselves they’re looking to the future and using the mistakes of the past to inform those choices. It’s…it’s profound.
But this is still a musical and it’s worth talking about the original tracks from Justin Hurwitz. Not only is it refreshing as I can’t remember the last time I saw a full-blown musical that wasn’t an adaptation from something I already knew, but there isn’t a dull one in the whole film. We’ve got the soaring opening “Another Day of Sun”, the cleverly written, fun and heart-wrenching “Someone In The Crowd” with its lyrical double-meanings and amazing compositions, the quiet, understated “City of Stars” which…urm…yeah that one’s a bit dull actually despite it winning the “Best Original Song” Oscar, the supposed-to-be-terrible-but-is-actually-awesome “We Could Start A Fire” and the amazing one-take wonder that is Mia’s “Audition”.
The film also gets great use out of its orchestra through some instrumental tracks like when Mia and Sebastian go on their first date at a Planetarium, the film’s Epilogue and Mia and Sebastian’s theme. The music’s almost all awesome but if I had to pick a favourite it would be “Someone In The Crowd” mainly because its variety of tempos takes the viewer on a real emotional journey throughout, not to mention it’s climax is pretty outstanding. The dance choreography from Mandy Moore works in tandem with the insanely good and dynamic cinematography from Linus Sandgren and also the editing from Tom Cross.
‘La La Land‘s entire visual approach seems to have been inspired by the work of Vincente Minnelli, right down to the increased colour saturation which makes party sequences and skylines pop out, the long, lingering shots to showcase the choreography, its surrealist tendencies, as well as the costume designs inspired by Minnelli’s costume designer in ‘Gigi‘; Cecil Beaton who emphasised the colour of the outfits to not only make them stand-out on the screen but to also reflect that character’s growth. Also the clever use of costume, art deco architecture and also the locations give ‘La La Land‘ a timeless look which, when combined with Linus Sandgren’s use of 2:55:1 aspect ratio film-stock as opposed to digital (which also helps when shooting the grand set-pieces as the focus doesn’t need to be pulled very often) allows ‘La La Land‘ to almost take place in a fantasy world that gives it a dreamlike quality.
‘La La Land‘ may be metaphorical catnip to fans of old-school Hollywood, or creative-types or “fools who dream” but thankfully it’s not all talk and is able to backup its aesthetics and themes with strong characters, themes that stick and just good ol’ fashioned technical proficiency. We’ve got great performances from Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, superb direction and production design, Oscar-calibre editing, cinematography and sound-mixing as well as an ending that sticks the landing and then-some. ‘La La Land‘ is a superb contemporary-musical and cements itself as one of the greatest movie-musicals ever made.
I give ‘La La Land‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 14th Jun 17